Plain Talk About the Civil Legal System
The civil legal system can be described with one phrase: “very complicated.” If you’re not an attorney, it’s difficult to understand all of the system’s moving parts. We understand it can be intimidating. However, don’t give up!
What follows is our attempt at plain talk about the civil legal system. Because Call for Justice is centered in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, most of what follows specifically applies to those counties.
Two beginning notes: if you’re involved with the criminal justice system, read no further. You need to contact a criminal defense attorney and we recommend you contact the Neighborhood Justice Center for assistance in Ramsey County (651-222-4703), or the Legal Rights Center for assistance in Hennepin County, (612-337-0030). What we say below is only for people navigating the civil legal system.
Also, if you’ve been injured in an accident or if you have an employment discrimination case, low and moderate-income legal providers cannot help you due to their funding restrictions. We suggest that you contact the Lawyer Referral Services in Hennepin County (612-752-6666) and Ramsey County (651-224-1775). You may be able to hire an attorney without any upfront payments and with the attorney taking their fee out of any money obtained in your case.
Okay, here’s our Top Ten Pieces of Advice:
1. First, Call for Justice attempts to monitor all the moving parts of the civil legal system. Our goal is to assemble the critical information that will help people find legal assistance in one way or another. But, it’s not easy. Information about available legal resources can change week to week, and sometimes, daily. We recommend that you frequently check the Call for Justice website if you’re having difficulty finding an attorney; it may be that newly posted information will help you locate legal assistance. You can also call United Way 211 (dial 2-1-1) to talk to a live person about legal referrals.
2. Second, the system doesn’t have enough money or enough attorneys to help everyone who needs legal help. Because of this, at least half the people who want an attorney in the traditional sense—that is, a lawyer who will take on their legal problem from beginning to end—won’t be able to get that. Instead, you might get only a half hour with an attorney, but that may be enough time for the attorney to write a letter on your behalf. The attorney may also tell you what to expect as you go forward. After that, you may be on your own to navigate the system as you solve the rest of your legal problem.
3. Because there aren’t enough resources, the system has resorted to intelligent shortcuts to get people legal help. One tremendously valuable shortcut is the Self-Help Center at the Hennepin County Courthouse. Another is the Ramsey County Law Library, which also provides self-help resources. Neither of these places provides legal advice, but they will help you fill out forms that can help with your legal problem. Additionally, there are attorneys on call daily at the Hennepin County Government Center near the Self-Help Center. Be aware that their hours vary, and they will consult with you, but cannot take on your case from start to finish. Attorneys and law students are available at the Ramsey County Law Library Tuesdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., where they help with small claims (Conciliation Court) and housing cases.
4. Because there aren’t enough resources to go around, most Legal Aid programs have eligibility rules about who will and who won’t qualify for their programs. Eligibility for many low-income legal assistance programs depends on income as measured against the federal government’s poverty guidelines. Most programs require an individual or family to be somewhere between 125% and 200% of the poverty guidelines (see Eligibility Information). This means that if your income or your family’s income (wages, Social Security, spousal support, pension, etc.) is beyond 200%, it’s possible your case won’t be handled by most programs.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply for help with a Legal Aid program. Income can be determined various ways, and the calculations always take into account deductions, such as medical expenses or family size. We strongly recommend that you contact Legal Aid unless your income is far above the Poverty Guidelines.
5. Where you live can also determine whether a legal assistance program will take you. People in Saint Paul may be covered by one program and people in Minneapolis covered by another. Unless you’re a survivor of domestic abuse (and need to live in a safe, secret place), it’s important that you give your real address, since an attorney will need to mail important court papers if they take your case. If you don’t actually live at the address you give, your case could be harmed by long delays in you picking up your mail.
6. Some programs don’t consider income or where you live. If you’re disabled, the Disability Law Center (612-332-1441) will consider taking your case regardless of how much you or your family make and where your home is located. If you’re a senior (60 or older), you may qualify for Legal Aid without regard to your income as part of the Senior Law Project.
Again, it’s important to contact a program to see if they can help you. It’s also important to understand that getting legal help isn’t automatic.
7. There are different kinds of programs for different kinds of legal needs. If you have a problem with your landlord, there are special housing law programs (homelinemn.org). If your spouse or live-in partner has assaulted or hit or threatened you, there are protective programs (cornerstonemn.org, tubman.org, and many others) A good place to figure out if there’s a special program for a special legal problem is LawHelpMN.org (lawhelpmn.org).
8. Don’t wait unit a legal problem turns into a legal emergency. Legal assistance programs will provide advice before problems turn into emergencies. If you’re having a problem with your landlord, contact a legal assistance program before you’re faced with an eviction notice or before the landlord changes the locks (something that’s illegal in Minnesota, by the way).
Similarly, if someone gives you lawsuit papers (called a “summons” and a “complaint”), don’t ignore them. You’ll have to respond in writing to the papers in only 20 days from the date you get them. If you don’t respond, you will automatically lose, and then it’s possible the person suing can start garnishing (taking money from) your bank account or paycheck.
The Volunteer Lawyers Network (612-752-6677) operates a lawsuit answering service for residents of Hennepin and Ramsey Counties. Also, LawHelpMN.org can help you create an answer on-line (lawhelpmn.org/debtdefense).
9. If you have automobile liability insurance or homeowner’s insurance and you get sued because of a car accident or an injury at your home, your insurance company likely will provide you with a lawyer. If you get served with lawsuit papers, call your insurance agent first thing to determine if the insurance company will provide a lawyer.
10. Some problems can’t be solved by lawyers or the court system. There are some problems that lawyers can’t fix. If you want to get an eviction off your record where the landlord won the eviction case, or if you want to renew your lease for another year but the landlord doesn’t (and the landlord hasn’t violated the law), a lawyer won’t be able to help you. If three different attorneys say that you don’t have a case, believe them and quit looking for another lawyer to talk to. Sorry, sometimes honesty is the most difficult thing to either say or hear.
Remember—many times it’s up to you to figure out how to get through the civil legal system. For help in finding the right legal assistance program, contact United Way 211, or go on-line to LawHelpMN.